Creating new pathways in the prison environment by using micro-credentials


OntheMIC – Micro-credentials as a means for recognition and validation of learning Erasmus+ – project concentrates on developing methods for identifying and recognizing the competence of adult learners. The goal of the project is to improve the self-esteem and competence of these people, as well as the courage and self-confidence to take on new challenges. Special attention was given to the project’s pilots, to make visible the skills acquired by adult learners through informal learning. Small competence sets, micro-credentials, are documented in certificates. It is also essential that adult learners have opportunities to acquire the missing skills they need to build their path to employment, studies, or a better quality of life.

In Finland, this has been done by the Live Foundation’s project workers, for example, with clients of GoodWill Finland’s rehabilitative work activities and prisoners in Kerava and Hämeenlinna prisons. In this article I will tell you a little more about cooperation and work in prisons.

I am working as a guidance counselor at Live Vocational College, which is a vocational special education institution. I also work as a career counselor for TUVA (Degree Preparatory Education) students, for example, in Kerava, Vantaa and Helsinki prisons. Part of my working time is dedicated to the OnTheMIC project.

This combination was the starting point when, together with Project Manager Pia Törnwall, we decided to present our project in the prisons of Kerava and Helsinki and propose cooperation through pilots.

 Studying in prisons and participating in work activities

Generally, it is thought that imprisonment is a period in a person’s life that is neither productive nor useful in any way. Imprisonment is considered only as a punishment, which it naturally is. However, in Finnish prisons, it is possible to study in preparatory and some degree-leading education and thus anticipate the needs of life after release. In some cases, taking part in studies can also be combined with work activities by conducting study-related work tests, demonstrations, and work tasks. If a prisoner does not study, he or she is obliged to participate in the prison’s work activities unless he or she has a health justification not to participate.

We found that the main beneficiaries of our activities would be prisoners who participate in prison work activities. Through work activities, prisoners achieve skills that have not previously been identified or recognized. Work activities in prisons have not traditionally been seen as a learning environment where one could accumulate competence that could be acknowledged.

The methods developed and piloted during the OnTheMIC project, such as the description of the working environment, the initial assessment (profile of the person’s own competence) and the division of work tasks into small sub-entities (microcredits), could also work well in prison environments for the recognition and recognition of competence. So, we decided to test the use of the methods in cooperation with Rise (Criminal Sanctions Agency).

 Kerava prison pilots

When we got the green light from Kerava Prison, we started planning to carry out pilots.

In the first pilot, the cleaning supervisor of Kerava Prison and her “cleaning team” (consisting of 6-8 prisoners) joined us in developing the documentation of small competence sets in the prison’s work activities. The pilot was started by first opening up the method and discussing it with cleaning supervisor Anne Kuisma. We mapped out how we could use the methods and forms developed in GoodWill Finland’s rehabilitative work activities as a basis for the work activities of Kerava prison. Together, we considered what kind of work activities could be suitable for using our methods. Then, we made practical schedules and plans that considered the special nature of the prison as a learning environment. Based on these discussions, I created templates for prison work activities (both in Finnish and English, as some prisoners do not have Finnish as their mother tongue).

Next, we agreed on a time together during which I was supposed to attend the cleaning shift. During that time, we made descriptions of the working environment of the cleaning sites with the supervisor. We made initial assessments with the prisoners, which revealed their individual strengths, development needs and interests. Next, we divided the cleaning tasks of the Kerava prison into sufficiently small entities which can provide a clear picture of the prisoner’s competence. This information was written in form templates that can be used as a tool for orientation and monitoring competence accumulation. This procedure gave supervisor Anne Kuisma an in-depth introduction to the method, and it was good for her to start using it in her work.

During the pilot, Anne, the supervisor of cleaning operations, went through the daily tasks with the prisoners, both at the beginning and after they had completed the work tasks. With the help of the divided work tasks into small entities on forms, it was easy to monitor the progress of the work and the prisoner’s accumulation of competence. In this way, the prisoners received immediate feedback on the day’s activities and their skills.

When we had a feedback discussion with Anne, she told us that the forms served well in documenting the prisoners’ skills and were also necessary as utilities for structuring working days. She was surprised that the use of the method developed in the OnTheMic project did not in any way increase the daily workload of the foreman but in the long run, even reduced it when the tasks were open. At the time of the feedback discussion, about one month after the start of the pilot, Anne said that three prisoners had already received certificates of their competence. According to her, these prisoners were very satisfied that their skills had been made visible in this form.

Overall, Anne is very pleased that the method developed in the OnTheMic project gave her a new tool to utilize in her work with prisoners. She found it remarkable how satisfied and empowered the prisoners participating in the pilot were. Anne plans to continue using the OnTheMic method. She also says that she has recommended this method to other supervisors of work operations at Kerava Prison. We agreed that they could contact me, if necessary, so that we could plan on cooperation and familiarization with our method.

Sharing experiences opens new opportunities for cooperation.

In May 2023, I participated in the prison education development days organized in Vaasa. In Vaasa, I met Kati Sunimento, who is working as a specialist responsible for training and work activities at the Criminal Sanctions Agency. I told her about our cooperation with Kerava prison, and she was very excited about such an opportunity. Kati believes that documenting micro-credentials in prison work activities would be significant and meaningful, specifically to support the construction of prisoners’ future paths. We tentatively agreed that I would go and present our method at the training day for supervisors in Finnish prisons.

 Micro-credentials at Hämeenlinna Women’s Prison

On the same prison education development days, I also met Tiina Rantanen, a Special Counsellor at Hämeenlinna Women’s Prison, and Anna Kröger, a Guidance Counsellor, who became interested in our pilot at Kerava Prison. We discussed their needs and what we had to provide and quickly realized that it was worthwhile to join forces to document micro-credentials for prisoners. The long-term goal in Hämeenlinna prison is naturally to improve prisoners’ future opportunities by giving them opportunities to demonstrate their skills and obtain a certificate of competence.

We agreed that I would prepare the necessary forms for their needs in Finnish and English, and then we would agree on the way forward. We did this, and we met in Hämeenlinna prison on 30.5.23. During my visit, we went through the tasks related to horticulture and property maintenance, divided tasks into sufficiently small entities and made descriptions of the work environments. I was able to discuss with the prisoners the documentation of micro-credentials and the whole method, and they seemed very interested.

By August 2023, Hämeenlinna Prison has not yet had time to introduce forms adapted to its work environments. Special instructor Tiina Rantanen explains the progress of the matter: “However, we have already arranged a meeting with two supervisors for next week, where we will look into the matter. The director of the property maintenance group wanted to set it for himself as a profit target, and he is very motivated about it.”

 Thoughts on the usefulness of documenting micro-credentials in prisons

Based on the feedback and experiences gained from the pilots, it can be concluded that the methods for verifying micro-credentials developed in the OnTheMic project are beneficial. When the skills acquired in prison work are made visible and documented, after the release, the prisoner will have a certificate of competence received during the imprisonment. In addition to the fact that this document can be very significant when applying for a job or educational institution, its impact on an individual’s perception of him or herself as a learning and competent person can be considered particularly significant. For some long-time prisoners, this document of skills may be the first certificate ever received. Many prisoners have really blemished experiences of schooling. They may also have had learning challenges and a poor image of themselves as learners. A certificate of competence is a sign of success. Therefore, it can be very empowering and even pivotal for the future.

It is vital for the prisoner to realize that he or she gained competence and thereby improved his or her chances of a future crime-free life in the form of employment or studies, for example. It is also not worth underestimating the importance of strengthening the prisoner’s self-esteem, self-knowledge, and empowerment in terms of life management and future solutions.